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Dorothea Rosa Herliany’s poetry challenges us, shocks us, in the way it speaks about the unspeakable, disappointment and despair, the worst that humanity is capable of and the emptiness that such awareness curses us with.

Apparently casual, with their lower case letters, their informal address, the poems are in fact tightly controlled – as is this collection Kill the Radio, translated by Harry Aveling and published by Arc, which is divided into 3 sections. The first ‘Secret Sex Telegrams’ contains poems that take the shape of familiar forms – letters, an episode from a serial, telegrams, songs, a legend, a diary and a sympathy card. These are all universal, familiar, almost clichéd, ways of communicating but the poems themselves often chart the failure of communication. How do we cross the divide between person and person, political party and political party, nation and nation? How do we say what we mean and mean what we say?

as you stand, you realize
that if you tried to say
something would have to be done to turn your grief
into yet another form of entertainment.

The poems in this section deal specifically with the plight of women in an oppressive, patriarchal society, charting their vulnerability and calling for resistance:

iit is time to get rid of the old myths.
to replace them with the creaking of the table
and the slam of the door. to write other poems
with new words. to create new myths.
to give you a different history.

This is as true now in Britain (and the West more generally) as it is in Indonesia: although not many poets writing in English, limited by our island life, fearful of big ideas, are broaching it. (Since giving this introduction, Carol Ann Duffy’s work as Poet Laureate has changed things enormously. Hallelujah.)

The middle section is a series of fragments from the ‘Kill the Radio’ sequence. These are poems of listening in the dark, threaded through with sounds and questions that allow Dorothea Rosa Herliany to suggest ‘the ears/always hear what they pretend not to hear’. This section is written from an impossible situation, caught in the heart of paradox, having to bear opposing truths:

sometimes we need to unwrap our memories
and enjoy the times filled with a thousand different things.

sometimes we don’t need to tell lies to keep our self-respect.
there is still time to plan for the future.
to wash the dust from our feet so we can go forward again.

but sometimes too, memories hurt.
like the sound of a door late at night, the shrieking of an insect
in a dark clump of weeds, settling on the window,
then crawling slowly into our warm, restless bodies.

Magelang, 1999 (‘– fragment 24’)

The final section is called ‘Talking Trash’. More overtly political than the other two, its argument is Auden’s that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Time passes – ‘centuries and centuries’ (a favourite phrase of hers) – and what actually changes?

My strongest impression of Dorothea Rosa Herliany is the intense focus of her honesty and courage. She admits that she’s caught between fear and hope (who of us isn’t?); she knows life is fragmentary and uncertain but she keeps on, in her own words,
making (her) own way forward
trying to follow humanity’s path home.

Linda France, 2009

Back to Kill the Radio, 2006